A Vulgar Neighbourhood
by John Plummer
The bell of the illuminated clock of Whitechapel Church slowly booms out the hour of nine, as Labour wearily returns homewards from his daily routine of monotonous toil, amid the intricate network of giant warehouses, gloomy mildew wharves, close pent up manufactories, and dusty offices, which constitute the mighty palpitating heart of the new Babylon. The cold damp pavement reverberates with the dull heavy tread of the roughly shod feet which hurry over its mud stained, slippery surface; while the thick murky atmosphere is redolent of smoke, gas, and London mud; and filled with the confused murmuring noise arising from the vast sea of human beings, which is surging through the main thoroughfare, and occasionally sending forth wavelets into branch channels in the shape of narrow, dingy, and by no means attractive looking streets where they dwindle to tiny rills, which become lost amongst a bewildering chaos of dark fever reeking courts and squalid poverty haunted lanes.
Each locality of our overgrown Metropolis possesses its own distinctive characteristics, and the peculiarity attached to Whitechapel is that it is the Bond Street of Labour. True, we should seek in vain for the faultlessly fitting apparel, magnificent shirt fronts, razor edged collars, lustrous Hobys, delicate kid-gloves, aristocratic lorgnettes, jewelled bracelets, and rich moire antiques of the Western thoroughfare; nor should we expect to inhale the fragrant odours of Peisse and Lubin, in a locality sacred to hot saveloys, tripe, fried fish, smoking pudding, baked potatoes, and other savoury delicacies, with which Labour regales his not over fastidious palate; but we have abundant opportunities for observing what stuff the wealth producers of society are made of; for here we meet with Labour in every possible guise, from young Magenta Sarsnet, assistant to Messrs. Ribbon, Muslin, & Co., in his bran new Volunteer uniform, down to the poor shivering needlewoman, who, with garments utterly devoid of crinoline appendages, nervously shambles homewards, with her heavy bundle of coarse slop-work, from the establishment of Shadrach, Sweater, & Co., in Hounsditch. Here, Labour's attention is arrested by a man with a large carriage-umbrella, which is spread open and filled with a variety of prints and engravings, the majority of which are profusely decorated with red, blue, and yellow colours, in the most approved Pre Raphaelite style. Next to the picture vendor, stands a stall keeper with linen sleeves and apron of snow white texture, and who is busily engaged in retailing sundry mysterious compounds of a highly saccharine nature, and which are respectively designated as "Pine apple Rock," “Sebastopol Candy," “Volunteer Toffy,” etc, but the flavour of which surely cannot be improved by the unmistakable odours which emanate from the wet flabby baskets of his neighbour of the Guernsey shirt, who is rapidly disposing of his stock of suppositious fresh herrings.
Now, Labour stops at one of those literary oases which are occasionally found in the sterile desert of Street hawkerdom - a book stall; where he is soon employed in thumbing old, greasy, dogs eared numbers of Chamber's Journal," Mechanics' Magazine," "Penny Cyclopedia," “Penny Magazine," and other choice literary food; or smiling with grim contempt at the pert miliner's apprentice, who is investing her last penny in the purchase of two or three rudely illustrated numbers of such startling and thrilling tales as " Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood:” “The Death Grasp; or, the Skeleton Hand:" "Vileroy; or, the Horrors of Zindorf Castle," etc. There is no truer barometer of popular literary taste than the humble stall of the street book seller, and it is highly satisfactory to learn that of late years the demand for penny novels and similar literary trash has steadily declined; while the sale of back numbers and second hand editions of such works as "Cassell's Educator," “Chambers's Information," " Chambers's Cyclopedia," and “Knight's Volumes," is on the increase.
Leaving the book stall, Labour passes an endless array of stalls covered with vegetables, toys, crock cry, fruit, tinware, haberdashery, fish combs, flowers, stationery, and other popular requisites. Here he pauses to listen to the gruff voice of a ballad singer, and now he hearkens to the "Cheap Jack," who with insinuating “blarney," is persuading his hearers to purchase the very " identical last lot of spoons, which are the same pattern as was made for Prince Albelt," and who devotes his profits to the purchase of beefsteaks and hot gin and water. Now, Labour gazes, with open mouth, at the marvellous diagrams exhibited by the quack doctor. Now, he drifts past a Socialist spouter; and now he is running across the road to pick up the poor little fellow, who has just been run over by the butcher's cart. With loving gentle care he raises the fainting sufferer from the blood bespattered stones, and bears him in his own strong, rugged, but tender embrace, to the ever open portals of the London Hospital, whose bulky smoke dried form stands only a few paces distant. A dense pitying throng is already gathered around the gates, and remains long afterwards to listen to the dismal recitals of withered, stooping, old dock labourers, concerning poor miserable creatures, who have been crushed by falling casks of sugar, maimed by bars of iron, or drowned by falling from the dock jetties, and were borne in slow ghastly procession to the hospital, where it was not unfrequently found on removing the cloth which covered the bleeding mangled body, that life had been long extinct. His work of humanity done, Labour resumes his homeward path, and, disregarding the allurements of “Free and Easys,” "Free Concerts," or "Dry Skittle Grounds," murmurs to himself the refrain of some melody akin to the plaintive air of "Home, Sweet Home," and dreams of a humbly furnished, but cleanly and tidily arranged apartment, where his smiling helpmate, and two or three laughing, prattling youngsters, are anxiously awaiting his return.
At some other time we will accompany Labour to his lowly abode but at present we are condemned to wander about the streets until daybreak. It is now ten o'clock; and a few slovenly, uncouth, shrivelled old hags make their appearance at the dark entrances of low, dirty, repulsive courts, where they remain on the look out for their helpless and intoxicated victims. Beetle browed giants, with hang dog looks and gaol-cropped hair, and muffled up in shawls and over coats, with capacious pockets, sally forth from the vile, infamous dens in the disreputable vicinity of "Flower and Dean Street," intent on errands of a burglarious nature; while tattered, mud splashed, and foot sore tramps, drunken beggars, and other specimens of the refuse of society, commence wending their way towards the filthy and over crowded lodging houses which are to be found in the rear of the High Street.
The crowd, which but a short time previously besieged the thoroughfares, is now replaced by straggling throngs of shopkeepers' assistants, porters, and others, whose avocations begin and terminate at a later hour than those of the main portion of the industrial community; and by eleven o'clock even these disappear from the scene, leaving the pavement clear to the idle, dissolute riff raff of the streets, who chaff the drunken sot that staggers along, with a curse on his lip, and the fires of gin caused insanity in his heart. God help his poor wife! for it is little help that she receives from him who, at the altar, swore to cherish and protect her, but who now dashes into the cold, tireless garret, and dog like, brute-like, devil like dashes her to the ground in his insane fury, and wakes in the dull leaden light of the early morning to find his wretched soul stained with the crime of murder! Perhaps the victim's dying scream was heard faintly by the tawdrily-attired, painted, and reck less courtezans who linger near the doors of still open gin places, or dance, in wild, frantic whirls, through the streets, or shout forth discordant snatches of song, which ring through the chilly night air like the despairing shrieks of fallen angels. One by one, however, all these vanish; and as twelve resounds from the church clock, the High Street appears deserted excepting a stray policeman here and there. The gas lamps cast a red flickering glare on the wet sloppy pavement, and perchance reveal some living bundle of rags, which lies coiled up on the stone steps of a sheltering doorway.
All the shops are closed, excepting one or two night public houses, which are filled by miserable creatures, dissipated youths, and suspicious looking fellows. Perhaps the " company" is increased by the addition of a couple of "gents," who treat all round, unobservant of the little weasen faced imp who has slyly crept outside, and is conversing in low whispers with two savage determined, ferocious featured votaries of crime, that follow the “gents" from the neighbourhood of the night house, and by quietly “gorrotting" them, and leaving them senseless in the kennel, realise not in the desired sense the resolution of the two unlucky victims of “fast" life, not to "go home till morning.”
The hours steal slowly on, as the homeless and hopeless unfortunate clutches her thin tattered shawl around her attenuated frame, and staggers miserably onward; or crouches from the ruffian violence of the cowardly bully, who, with bloodshot eyes and livid features, sallies forth in quest of mischief. Here prowl two little urchins, young in years, but fearfully old in crime. Lo! they have suddenly disappeared – no there they are, slinking in the gloomy shade of the butcher's shop door, until that vigilant Police constable Lynx eye, shall have passed. There rises the tall skeleton form of the fire escape, and in front of the sentry box stands the brave, fearless man who has rescued so many lives from the fearful doom with which they were threatened. In olden times he would have been crowned with laurel, and honoured by the State; but now well, he, is only a poor fire escape attendant, so let him stand on the pavement, and gaze at the dull crimson light in the horizon which betokens a distant fire.
Still pass the hours; carts laden with hay and straw begin to arrive from the country ; a coffee stall makes its welcome appearance at the corner of the street; pale, sleepy featured operatives walk, with languid steps, in the direction of the City; jaded cab drivers urge their still more jaded horses towards the stables; water cress girls hurry along with their empty baskets; milk men wait at street corners for the dairy vans; while worn out, dusty journeymen bakers sleepily grope their way to the lodgings where they eke out their existence. The gaslights become paler and paler, the street seems more animated, the coffee stall is surrounded by an eager throng of customers, and the first, thin narrow streaks of light in the horizon become larger and, broader as we wend our homeward way, tired, but not uninterested, by our night in Whitechapel.